‘Utterly devoid of physical fear:’ Novelist Mark Warren writes about a famous gunfighter
“I’ve always known I’d write a book about Wyatt Earp,” said author Mark Warren in a recent phone conversation.
The Georgia-based novelist has written three. Adobe Moon, the first book of his Wyatt Earp: An American Odyssey trilogy, was published in 2017. The second, Born to the Badge, a year later, and the third, Promised Land, will be released Oct. 1.
The first two novels take Wyatt from bouncing in a Missouri brothel to law enforcement in Dodge, where he uses what he learned from an Irish boxer (and the butt of his revolver) to “cool off” and disarm drunken Texas cowboys disobeying ordinances against carrying guns in town. In Kansas, he meets the irascible John Henry Holliday, becoming one of the few people the deadly dentist turned gambler actually likes.
In the last book, Wyatt joins his brothers and Holliday in Tombstone, where tensions mount between the Republican Yankee “law dogs” and the Dixiecrat drovers who provide the town with beef by stealing Mexican cattle (and sometimes murdering vaqueros). A 30-second shootout in the alley beside Fly’s Photographic Studio (not the OK Corral) results in the Vendetta Ride that effectively ended Wyatt’s law enforcement career.
Mark Warren, who is 72, first became fascinated by Wyatt Earp at age 7. That was 1955, when The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the first T.V. Western aimed at adults, premiered on ABC.
But Warren became fascinated with Wyatt not via T.V., but by reading Stuart Lake’s biography Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall. Lake’s book was published in 1931, two years after Wyatt’s ashes were buried a Jewish cemetery. Lake died in 1964 but lived to see himself and his book discredited, and its subject’s reputation tarnished.
“It’s a pity Lake turned Wyatt into a such a flawless hero,” Warren said,” because he also did a lot of great research. Once the book was proved to contain lies, it was widely assumed that Wyatt was responsible. He wasn’t. Other than when talking about the death of Johnny Ringo, about which we’ll probably never know the truth, Wyatt was scrupulously honest.”
Because Stuart Lake fabricated so much, it was once believed that Billy Breakenridge’s 1928 memoir Helldorado was more accurate. Breckinridge, a friend to the “Cow-Boys” killed in the gunfight and deputy to the Dixiecrat sheriff who was Wyatt’s political enemy and romantic rival, portrayed Wyatt as a liar, thief, pimp and murderer. Breakenridge’s book was just as fictionalized as Lake’s, but because as grittier, it seemed more “real.”
Only in recent decades that historians, relying on primary documents such as 19th century court transcripts, diaries, and correspondence rather than self-serving 20th century memoirs, have mostly concluded that, until Morgan was murdered and Virgil crippled in ambushes, the Earp brothers were lawmen legitimately trying to do their duty rather than criminals out to eliminate rivals.
Today, the best biography of the wandering gunman who could never find what he wanted in life and only became posthumously famous is Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend by Casey Tefertiller. “Casey did such a great job that I knew there was no point in my trying to a do a biography,” Warren said.
In turn, Tefertiller gave Warren’s Adobe Moon the kind of blurb any author of historical fiction would kill to get from a respected historian. “This wonderfully written work makes readers feel almost as if they are sitting next to Wyatt on that brothel barge on the Illinois River, enjoying the treats of the time. Historical fiction can be a delight, and Warren delivers.”
I asked Warren why he spent so many decades researching his trilogy but only began writing it in his 60s.
“It took me that long to figure out how Wyatt thought. I just could not make sense of so much of what he did, until I realized the answer had been staring me in the face all along. Several of his contemporaries, including Bat Masterson, said virtually the same words about him: he was one of the few men that I ever met in the West who was utterly devoid of physical fear. That’s not the same thing as courage. There’s a difference between a man who never feels fear and one who conquers it.”
Mark Warren will speak about and give a slide presentation on Wyatt Earp at Scuppernong Books at 304 S. Elm Street in Greensboro on Sunday, Aug. 11. The event, which is free and open to the public, will last from 2 to 3 p.m., with a signing afterward.
To learn more about Mark Warren and to read the first chapter of Adobe Moon for free, visit the website.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.